Digital Portfolios and "Dark Mode"

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January 28, 2020

Although it seems laughably improbable, my first portfolio was made of literal, physical slides. Yes, slides that would go into a projector in a dark room where a group of quasi-mythical experts reviewed the images before them.

My portfolio to get into art school was digital—photographs of drawings and paintings that I submitted online. By the time I reached graduate school it was expected that I maintained an online portfolio.

Now that I'm transitioning into a career in UI/UX, I am building a portfolio of digital products. As I built my portfolio I became interested in the trendy "dark mode". I was drawn by dark mode's claim of accessibility (which in many ways is debatable). My first attempt at building my website in dark mode proved challenging. Something didn't feel right about how my case studies looked against a dark background.

While there is a certain sexiness of products on a dark background, I find myself more quickly engaged by something against a stark, white background. Let's unpack this.

The color white is deeply culturally coded. Wedding dresses, doctor's coats, chef's aprons, etc. For better or for worse (probably definitely worse), white is the color of purity.

Enter the "white cube". Today when we think of fine art, we think of it in a specific place. We think of the sterile white walls of galleries and museums. The white cube is so deeply coded that non-art objects placed in this context become perceived as artwork (which is a much longer story for a different blog). However, this was not always the case. The white cube is relatively new; only showing up in the early part of the twentieth century. With the rise of Abstractionism, where painting largely became about the actual, physical paint and color, it seemed important that the context in which they were shown was pure and "empty" and didn't compete with the content of the painting. The white cube became the standard for the contemporary, the avant-garde, the highest of high art.

So, let's take it back to the digital portfolio. Do my digital products look better, more high culture, because they are on a white background? I believe that the white cube transcends into the digital sphere. Its cultural influence applies to designed objects tangible or otherwise.

If we take a more physiological approach we may consider that it is just a question of seeing. Back when my portfolio was printed on small, square slides, they had to undergo a practiced ritual to be seen. Only via illumination could the images be seen with clarity. Now that our portfolios live on our computers, the illumination is that of the screen. Light is the vehicle by which we see. Maybe it is not the perceived purity of white but the onslaught of photons bouncing off of the screen that captivates us. Both are likely unavoidable factors.

When deciding if my portfolio should be presented in dark or light mode, I avoided the conflict by designing both. It seems like a design problem for a more skilled designer to solve.

What do you think?